It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror, says
psychologist and science historian MICHAEL SHERMER

Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Page A21

I once had the opportunity to ask Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List,
what he thought was the difference between Oskar Schindler, rescuer of Jews
and hero of his story, and Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow
concentration camp. His answer was revealing. Not much, he said. Had there been no
war, Mr. Schindler and Mr. Goeth might have been drinking buddies and
business partners, morally obtuse, perhaps, but relatively harmless. What a
difference a war makes, especially to the moral choices that lead to good and evil.

Ever since 9/11, the discussion of good and evil has migrated out of the
departments of philosophy and theology and into our social and political
discourse. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair
generously sprinkle their public orations with the terms, describing Osama bin Laden
and Saddam Hussein as the embodiment of pure evil.

Thursday's bombings in Madrid added another layer. Mr. Bush called them "a
grim reminder that there are evil people in the world who are willing to kill
innocent life."

I understand the political rhetoric, but when millions of people around the
world celebrate 9/11 as a triumphant victory over what they perceive to be an
evil America, or when others see the horror inflicted in Spain as a means to
their goals, we need to move beyond politics to arrive at a deeper understanding
of good and evil.

The myth of good and evil is grounded in Christian theology and the belief
that such forces exist independently of their carriers, either directing the
course of history toward benevolent or nefarious ends, or within individuals
driving them to perform good acts or evil deeds. As adjectival modifiers, good and
evil well describe many acts and people. But as nouns, they imply autonomous
existence, as in forces-of-evil.

In a scientific worldview, however, there is no such thing as good and evil
as supernatural forces operating outside the realm of the known laws of nature
and of human behaviour.

Good and evil are human constructs. A shift between two tectonic plates that
causes the earth to make a sudden movement is not inherently evil. It is the
effects of the earthquake that we judge to be evil. Likewise, bacterial
diseases are not intrinsically evil. By causing humans to sneeze, cough, vomit, and
have diarrhea, bacteria are simply doing what evolution designed them to do to
survive and propagate. As their human hosts, we may label the effects of a
disease as evil, but the disease itself has no moral existence.

Humans, however, do have a moral existence. We evolved to be moral animals,
but by no means always moral. Individuals in our evolutionary ancestral
environment needed to be both co-operative and competitive, for example, depending on
the context. Co-operation leads to more successful hunts, food sharing, and
group protection from predators and enemies. Competition leads to more
resources for oneself and family, and protection from other competitive individuals
who are less inclined to co-operate, especially those from other groups.

Social psychologists have well demonstrated how moral behaviour is tractable,
and that there is a range of potential for the expression of moral or immoral
behaviour. Which direction any one of us takes in any given situation depends
on a complex array of variables. A number of historical contingencies drove
Oskar Schindler to travel down a morally different path from Amon Goeth, even
though he could just as easily have gone the other way. From there, the
cascading consequences of each decision took each of them down their alternately
chosen tracks; the moral road not taken makes all the difference.

An obfuscating aspect of the myth of good and evil is an asymmetry that
exists in our moral observations about human nature. In our assessment of what
people are really like, we have a tendency to focus on evil acts and ignore the
fact that most of the time, most people are gracious, considerate, and
benevolent. For every act of violence or deception that appears on the nightly news,
there are 10,000 acts of kindness that go publicly unnoticed. In fact, violence
and deception make the news precisely because they are out of the ordinary.

The purpose of this exercise in ethical debunking is to shift the focus from
good and evil as metaphysical Platonic essences to quantifiable human
behaviours that can be scientifically studied, causally understood, and ultimately
modified. If pure evil exists, how can we hold people morally culpable? The
deepest problem with the myth of good and evil is that it implies that if only we
could rid the world of the evil, then good would triumph.

As one who would know from his experience with the gulags of the Soviet Union
(surely a den of evil if ever there were one), Alexander Solzhenitsyn
explained why the myth is so perilous: "If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them
from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts
through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of
his own heart?"

Eliminating the world's Osama bin Ladens, the Saddam Husseins or the
perpetrators of this week's latest carnage will not put an end to evil. But debunking
the myth and taking a more scientific approach to understanding good and evil
will start us down the path of immoral extrication and moral enlightenment.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for
Scientific American, and the author of The Science of Good and Evil.

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